I quite honestly don’t remember the last time I unplugged my phone charger. I keep it right next to my side of the bed, ready to support my hours of doom-scrolling before my brain gives me permission to sleep. I’m lucky that I don’t have to pay much attention to the fluctuations of my electricity bill — all utilities are included in my rent. But I’m not a monster, either, and I do care about being wasteful and I’m somewhat afraid of starting a fire. So how much of an impact does my perma-plugged charger really have?
While we might be using outlets that haven’t undergone any serious advancements in decades, most of the items we plug into them have. Larger appliances like refrigerators that require constant electricity use have become more efficient, though the number of objects we regularly use requiring an outlet is likely higher than our parents’ generation. Thing is, many of them are now designed to utilize relatively little “standby power,” as experts call it, when plugged in but not in use.
“Standby power” peaked in the early 2000s, when American’s electricity use per capita was at its highest. Appliances like microwaves, game consoles, TVs and computers had been designed to have minimal start-up time, requiring that the appliances were essentially “on” at all times. Today, though, electricity use per capita is in decline, back to levels previously seen in the early 1990s.
We still utilize a number of electronics with significant standby power, but our phone chargers aren’t one of them. A phone charger that’s plugged into the wall but not charging anything uses a maximum of 1 watt per year. That’ll cost you around $1 annually, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s annual standby power report. A desktop computer, by comparison, uses a maximum of 9.21 watts annually when switched off, translating to $9.
So, you’re not responsible for the destruction of the planet because you keep your phone charger in the wall. That said, there’s still good reason to consider unplugging as many things as possible when not in use. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends you always unplug what you can to reduce the risk of fires and electrocution. According to the National Fire Protection Association, “Home fires involving electrical distribution and lighting equipment caused an estimated average of 490 civilian deaths and 1,200 civilian injuries each year in 2012 to 2016, as well as an estimated $1.3 billion in direct property damage a year.” About half of electrical fires are caused by issues with the electrical system of your home, like in the wiring or lighting. Hypothetically, leaving a charger plugged in could impact the wiring, too, especially if the appliance cord itself is frayed or if the outlet mount is loose.
The odds of starting a house fire just because you left a charger plugged in are low, but not totally negligible. Still, the other objects you leave plugged in all the time are probably a bigger risk. Rather than fretting too much about it, though, it might be more important to make sure your smoke detectors are functioning — 65 percent of home fire deaths occurred in homes without working smoke detectors.
In other words, if we’re gonna let ourselves be lazy about our chargers, we at least can’t be lazy about our smoke detectors.